There are few better ways to feel connected to nature than by surfing. It’s not surprising that many compare an act that is essentially walking on water to a religious experience. The first time a surfer is able to harness that energy of the ocean and draw lines on the face of a wave is a moment not soon forgotten, and one that many surfers spend subsequent years trying to recapture.
But as natural as the art of surfing is, the equipment used to practice that art is decidedly unnatural. Beginning in the 1950s, Jack O’Neill, who went on to found the surf brand O’Neill, and the twin Meistrell Brothers, who started Body Glove, began developing wetsuits for surfing that were made out of neoprene. It’s unclear who actually created it first, but neoprene stuck around as the wetsuit material of choice for the next half century.
And there is nothing natural about neoprene. Whether it’s petroleum-based or limestone-based, neoprene production requires a ton of chemicals, substantial carbon dioxide emission, and an enormous expenditure of energy. Then after you’ve done all that you’re left with a product that will never break down and will likely sit in a landfill for eternity.
While Patagonia is known for its sustainability efforts, even their wetsuits were made from neoprene for a long time. But rather than hide behind a bunch of marketing speak that deceived consumers about its wetsuits, the company called itself out. In a 2008 blog post, the brand acknowledged the negative environmental impact that neoprene wetsuits have—and then set out to find an alternative. The brand partnered with San Diego-based company Yulex to develop wetsuits made from natural rubber. The partnership first bore fruit in 2013 when Patagonia revealed a small collection of wetsuits that replaced neoprene with the rubber that naturally flows from the Hevea tree. While that was more of a pilot program, last week the company launched a full line of 21 cold water full suits that are all made from natural rubber and emit up to 80 percent less CO2 than traditional suits.
To find out how Patagonia cut the neoprene cord, we spoke with John “Hub” Hubbard, the product line manager for the company’s wetsuits.
How long did it take you to develop the material for these wetsuits?
It started in 2008. In the mid-2000s there was a lot of “greenwashing” going on in the wetsuit world. A lot of companies were touting limestone-based neoprene as some kind of innovative eco material. Even Patagonia was advertising limestone neoprene. But then they did some research and compared limestone neoprene to petroleum-based neoprene and found that they’re actually the same thing. One is not better than the other. We posted an article on our company blog saying there is no such thing as green neoprene. The guys at Yulex read that and said, ‘We might have an alternative’. They went to the lab and created a piece of foam about the size of a Scrabble chip and brought it to Patagonia and said “This could be the future.” We ended up partnering with Yulex, but it took six years before we had the first commercial, natural rubber-based wetsuit.
Where did the idea that limestone neoprene was better come from?
There’s a rubber manufacturer that calls one of its foams Geoprene and described it as limestone-based. Another wetsuit company picked up on that and marketed the heck out of it. That’s where it all started. It was completely irresponsible.
What is so bad about neoprene?
First of all it’s a finite resource, whether it’s petroleum-based or limestone-based. It takes an incredible amount of energy to create it. That’s the main thing. The carbon emissions from it are a big problem. It’s constantly off-gassing, letting off harmful gas while it’s in existence. It’s not anything that’s going to harm you but you don’t want to chew on it. And it never breaks down.
What did it take to create wetsuits from natural rubber?
A lot of trial and error. It took over 200 material trials. It was a good four years before that little Scrabble-sized rubber chip was made into the first wetsuit. Even then it wasn’t 100 percent ready for commercialization. I came on board when those first wetsuits were ready to be tested and I got to actually try one of the very first versions.
How do you get the natural rubber and turn it into a material that can be used for wetsuits?
The rubber we are using now is from the Hevea tree. They simply tap the tree and get the rubber. When they take the latex from the tree it’s about 80 percent water. So they first put it in a centrifuge and take out a lot of the water. Then that liquid form goes to Yulex, who then processes it and removes the proteins that are harmful to people with latex allergies. Then they coagulate it into a solid rubber block. That’s the ingredient that replaces the neoprene component for a wetsuit.
How long do rubber trees live?
The rubber trees have a lifespan of about 40 years. It takes five to six years before they are mature enough to be able to tap them. So you get a good 35 years of rubber production. Then when that lifespan is over, the wood can be harvested as a hardwood to make furniture, and they essentially put a seedling into the trunk of the old tree and a new one sprouts out.
How did you make sure that the wetsuits were not only better for the environment but also performed in the water?
The benchmark was always to meet or beat the current neoprene rubber wetsuits that Patagonia was making. Now our new range are completely indiscernible from neoprene. If I didn’t tell you it wasn’t neoprene and I gave you a suit you would have no idea. I like to say the only difference is that your car actually smells better if you leave one of these Yulex suits in the trunk all day.
Will all Patagonia wetsuits use this new material?
We are doing it in three stages. This winter season we changed all of our cold water suits to be neoprene free. Next season we’ll change all the warm water suits—the spring suits and tops. We’ll follow that up next winter with all the accessories—boots, gloves, hoods—so that one year from now we’ll be completely neoprene free.
What is the lifecycle of these products?
This product isn’t perfect. You can’t throw it in a landfill by any means. We are working with a couple companies on some creative ideas to recycle wetsuits into other products like shoes. As far as the lifecycle of the product itself, it’s about the same as a neoprene wetsuit. You should get a good two to three seasons out of it. We have an incredible ironclad guarantee and warranty so if someone’s not happy with the performance of their product, we’ll replace or refund it with pretty much no questions asked. And we have a great repair policy. We’re still repairing suits from our first generation that are 10 years old. We do all the work in-house right here in Ventura.
Where did you guys test these wetsuits out?
Some of the best cold water big wave surfers in the world are our surfing ambassadors from Chile and Ireland. We made sure we got their sign-off before we moved forward. [Chilean surfer] Ramon Novarro is one of our toughest critics. He actually did a trip to Antarctica with an early version of these about three years ago. We had another trip this year with some of our warm water ambassadors, Otto Flores from Puerto Rico and Kohl Christenson from Hawaii. Those guys went on a trip to Iceland. It was great that we could take the guys that are the most likely to get cold to some of the coldest places on earth and they were fine.
Aside from the environmental benefits are there any other aspects where these suits perform better than neoprene suits?
At this point I wouldn’t say they perform better. But knowing where they come from maybe makes you feel better. One of the best things about these new suits is the Forest Stewardship Certification of the plantations that we’re using. The FSC certification is a designation given by the Rainforest Alliance. It ensures there’s no clear cutting or loss of habitat and that the workers are well taken care of and have access to education and job advancement. There are other natural rubber products on the market that don’t have that FSC certification so you don’t know where it’s coming from.
What else does Yulex do? Was this a big project for them?
It was huge for them to get the technology out there. They originally started making alternatives to latex gloves, surgical tubing, condoms. But their holy grail was to get a tire company invested in their technology, which they’re working on. Patagonia is a small piece of the wetsuit industry but we have a high profile. Their intention and our intention is to totally disrupt the wetsuit industry. From the very beginning we knew we had to open source this technology. We didn’t try to seek any kind of exclusivity. We knew we were going to reach out to everyone we could to have them adopt this rubber.
Are other companies doing it?
There’s a couple smaller companies that adopted the Yulex brand. I can’t name names now, but others are testing it. Hopefully after this season we’ll see a turning point.
What is next for Patagonia surfing?
This is just chapter one in this novel. We’re hopefully going to start chipping away at some of the other ingredients in the [wetsuit] foam. The rubber is one ingredient, but there’s also foaming agents and carbon black and other things that hopefully we’ll find better alternatives to. We’re also talking about making our wetsuits fair trade in the future which could be a reality coming soon. So look out for that.